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Serendipity Group Celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the US-SLFC in Washington D.C.


Welcome and Remarks by Tissa Jayatilaka, Executive Director, US-SLFC

Ladies & Gentlemen:

On behalf of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission (US-SLFC) and the Serendipity Group, I welcome you and thank you very much for joining us this evening to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright programme in Sri Lanka.

I have had the privilege and honour of serving as Executive Director of the Commission now for a little over one third of its period of existence.

Yes, I do know where the bodies are buried!

In my opinion, the Fulbright programme is the best of the many gifts the United States has given to the world. Unlike most others, it is a gift that comes with no strings attached. It recognizes and fosters a meritocracy. And, significantly, it is a two way street, as educational exchange under the Fulbright programme is mutual — Americans coming to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans coming the United States for study and research.

Since 1952, over a 1000 citizens of our two countries have been Fulbright beneficiaries. Since 1979, around 50 Sri Lankans public servants have participated in and benefited from the Humphrey programme which, in Sri Lanka, is also administered by the US-SLFC.

There are many outstanding Sri Lankan Fulbright alumni. In the interests of sticking to my time limit today, I’ll mention the names of only two such alums. In the very first batch of Fulbright scholars in 1952 was Mr. Bradman Weerakoon, the father of Amb. Esala Weerakoon, the present DCM of the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington,D.C. Weerakoon senior is a retired civil servant who served as Secretary, if my arithmetic is correct, to no less than 7 Sri Lankan prime ministers. How he survived this ordeal remains a mystery to me.

Perhaps Fulbright fellowships, apart from helping to broaden one’s academic horizons, also train one to be a glutton for punishment!

The second Sri Lankan Fulbright alum I wish to name tonight is Kingsley de Silva, Emeritus Professor of History of the University of Peradeniya. He is without doubt the foremost living historian of Sri Lanka and the first ever to write a comprehensive one volume History of the island.

From among the Sri Lankan Humphrey Alumni, 9 were picked to serve as Secretaries to members of the Sri Lanka Cabinet in 2005–with one of them serving as Secretary to the President of the Republic–the equivalent of the chief of staff of the U.S. President. Among the American Fulbright stars are Prof. Jim Gair of Cornell; Prof. John Holt of Bowdoin College; Prof. Charlie Hallisey of Harvard; Prof. Anne Blackburn of Cornell; Prof. John Stiffler of University of Massachusetts at Amherst, our keynote speaker this evening.

Modesty kept me from keeping to the last to mention the names of Sri Lanka-born American Fulbrightstars but they certainly are not the least!

These are:

Emeritus Professor Gananath Obeysekere of Princeton; Emeritus Professor H.L. Seneviratne of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville; Prof. Vidya Samarasinghe of The American University and Dr. Vijaya Samaraweera, Historian turned legal scholar, Boston, Massachusetts. You would acknowledge even after this cursory glance at the past that the US-SLFC has done a pretty decent job in recognizing academic merit and professional talent in the last 60 years.

As Senator Fulbright once said the Fulbright programme is a modest programme with an immodest aim. It seeks to humanise international relations by the promotion of greater understanding of diverse cultures and societies outside our own. The means to this end is educational exchange. Of course we know that all of us–whether we live in the global north, south, east or west–have ways to go before we reach the goal set for us by Senator Fulbright. But we keep trying.

The Fulbright programme in Sri Lanka has striven to contribute immodestly to the humanizing of Sri Lanka. The mandate of the Commission is to promote mutual understanding between the peoples of Sri Lanka and the United States.

Whilst doing so, in recent years we have also sought to promote understanding between and among the different ethnic groups of Sri Lanka with a view to re-forging an over-arching Sri Lankan identity as opposed to a narrow ethnic identity. We have re-doubled our efforts in the direction after the bloody internecine war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state came to an end in May 2009. Healing wounds and rebuilding hope are not easy, but these are tasks we have to continue to pursue with sincerity, empathy and deep commitment. And, continue, we shall. I wish to conclude with my thanks to the following:

Don Camp, Jane Ross and the other members of The Serendipity Group;

To our distinguished speakers this evening;

Don Camp-– an intimate friend of many years and former colleague

Assistant Secretary Robert Blake, close friend and the most education-friendly U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka. I have had the pleasure of working closely with;

DCM Esala Weerakoon, close friend and consummate diplomat.

Prof. John Stifler, fellow – traveller and our keynote speaker

Ms. Susan Ness, Vice chair, Fulbright Foreign scholarship Board, who I was delighted to get acquainted with today and Mary Kirk, a close friend and colleague of many years, presently Director, Office of Academic Exchange Programmes, at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State.

I also wish to place on record my deep appreciation for the assistance we received from Sue Borja, Branch chief of the South and Central Asia fulbright Programme, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State and Programme Officer for Bangladesh, Nepal , Sri Lanka and The Maldives, TeressaMastrangelo and my colleagues at the US-SLFC without whom this event would not have got off the ground.

Thank you very much.

Welcome and Remarks by Mr Donald Camp, Chairman of the Serendipity Group:

On behalf of the Serendipity Group, a very warm welcome to our visitors today. It is great for me to see old friends like Tissa Jayatilleke; we worked together in Colombo when we were both in our 20s, so this is a long friendship. And former Ambassador to Sri Lanka Bob Blake, my colleague and friend in the foreign service. Amb. Shaun Donnelly Ambassador Esala Weerakoon, the DCM of the Sri Lankan embassy. Our other distinguished guests from the State Department and the Fulbright Scholarship Board, and of course the Fulbright Scholars, past and present, who are joining us today.

For those of you who don’t know the Serendipity Group, it is a loose but convivial grouping of friends of Sri Lanka here in Washington DC. It was established in the 80s by a few retired foreign service officers (Hugh Dwelley and Jay Hawley are here today) with an affection for Sri Lanka. They wanted to maintain their ties to the island and created this organization which has grown over the years to incorporate many residents of Washington with ties to Sri Lanka. We hold occasional programs on politics and culture, and the ever-popular annual string hopper dinners. Our next program we hope will highlight the wildlife of Sri Lanka. Our other co-chairs Ruwan Salgado and Jane Ross are here tonight. Jane in particular deserves our deep appreciation for all the effort she has put into this event. Without her, we would not be here tonight.

This evening, we are very happy to co-sponsor, with the State Department’s ECA Bureau, this reception honoring 60 years of the Fulbright program in Sri Lanka. Anyone with a connection to Sri Lanka knows how important the Fulbright program is to the US-Sri Lankan relationship. Generations of students and scholars have traveled from the US to Sri Lanka, and from Sri Lanka to US institutions, sharing their own cultures and gaining a better appreciation of each other’s societies. When I lived in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s, one of my best friends was an ethno-musicologist by the name of Ron Walcott. I was supposed to be an area specialist, in our embassy, but Ron introduced me to aspects of Kandyan culture and village life that no official American could have delved into so deeply. He even composed a piece for the Colombo Symphony featuring Kandyan drummers. I am sure our guest tonight John Stifler had similar experiences from his vantage point at the University of Peradeniya. People like John and Ron and Stanley Sporney, whose pictures you see here on the wall, have contributed to Sri Lanka but also contributed a richness to American culture when they returned. Some Sri Lankan Fulbrighters have made distinguished careers in this country – Professors H. L. Seneviratne and Vidya Samarasinghe, both here today, are wonderful examples of that. The abiding vision of J. William Fulbright has been realized in ways that I’m sure he did not envision 60 years ago.

Remarks Delivered by Ambassador Esala Weerakoon, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Sri Lanka

Ambassador Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs,

Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, Executive Director, United States – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission,

Mr. Donald Camp, Chairman of the Serendipity Group,

Ms. Susan Ness, Vice Chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board,

Ms.Mary Kirk, Director, Office of Academic Exchange Programmes,

Prof. John Stifler, Fulbright US Scholar Alumnus, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a privilege and honour to be associated with the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Fulbright Programme in Sri Lanka.  I thank the United States – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission and the Serendipity Group for your kind invitation.

I bring greetings and felicitations to you from the Government and the people of Sri Lanka and from Ambassador JaliyaWickramasuriya on this happy occasion. 

As Tissa Jayatilaka has reminded, there is a personal link I have with the Fulbright Programme in Sri Lanka.  My father was an early beneficiary of this wonderful academic exchange programme, when he read Sociology at the University of Michigan in 1952.  That link has been deepened by my warm personal relationship with Tissa who has given, for over 20 years, so much leadership to the US – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission.  Through his public speaking and erudite writings, valuable insights on American thought and culture have been steadily streamed into Sri Lankan life, be it in the spheres of education, literature, politics and foreign policy.  Many of us eagerly await Tissa’s forthcoming book on “US – Sri Lanka Relations”.

The United States – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission enjoys a solid reputation in my country as a well administered institution.  It is known for its transparency, for its scrupulous adherence to fairness in the selection procedure, and above all, for its zealous guarding of its autonomy.  

By means of the significant academic and professional exchanges that the Fulbright and Humphrey Awards have provided to Sri Lankan and American scholars for over 60 years, our two peoples have come together in a most productive and meaningful way.

Sri Lanka has been a friend and democratic partner of the United States since the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries in 1948.  Commercial contacts go back to 1787, when sailors from New England first anchored in Sri Lanka’s harbours.   Our first bilateral relations began then.  I recall, as a boy discovering with my father and Ambassador Chris Van Hollen sometime in the year 1975, the monument in Galle which marks the final resting place of the first American Consul, Mr. John Black.

US – Sri Lanka bilateral relations are deep, enduring and multifaceted.   As we know, however successful our bilateral relations may be, the people-to-people contact that is fostered by the Fulbright Programme is unique and invaluable.  These person to person contact has resulted in lifelong friendships between citizens of our two countries and their families.  This the vision of the late Senator J. William Fulbright, the founder of the academic exchange programme which bears his name, namely the promotion of mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of Sri Lanka and elsewhere. 

Long may the Fulbright Programme flourish and may the US – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission continue to grow and continue to enrich our two societies in the future. 

Congratulations on your 60th Anniversary.

We look forward to the next 60 years, as we celebrate the 60 years gone by.

Thank you.

Mary Kirk,

Director, Office of Academic Exchange Programs

· The 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka is an important milestone for the Program and for the bilateral relationship of the United States and Sri Lanka.

· I am honoured to be here and I want to thank Tissa and the Serendipity Group on behalf of my colleagues at the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Office of Academic Exchange Programs, which I lead. We have the responsibility and also the delight to work with Tissa and his team in Colombo in carrying out the Fulbright Program on a day by day basis.

· I also want to acknowledge the private organizations in the United States that assist us in administering the Fulbright Program with Sri Lanka, particularly the Institute of International Education and the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars.

· Three brief observations:

· First and foremost, the Fulbright Commission in Colombo has upheld the Fulbright hallmarks of transparency and merit-based selection for all awards and has carried out the program with great integrity even in difficult circumstances.

· Second, the excellent selection of Sri Lankan and US grantees has produced a prominent group of alumni in all professions of whom the program can be justifiably very proud.

· Third, the wide array of Fulbright and related activities carried out by the Commission continue to be vitally relevant to our bi-national relationship as witnessed by the US and Sri Lankan government and private sector representatives here tonight.

· Many thanks to Dr. Stifler for sharing not only his own experiences but also his impressions of the other US Students and Scholars on the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka. His remarks illustrated very well the far-reaching impact and widening circle of connections that emerge from each individual exchange experience.

· This evening we can be proud of sixty years of Fulbright exchanges and can also look forward to continuing the rich tradition of activities that support leadership development and mutual understanding between our two countries.

FSB Vice Chair, Susan Ness

US-SLFC Fulbright 60th Anniversary Event

November 9, 2012

• Thank you Mr. Jayatilaka for your kind introduction. I’m delighted to be here this evening on behalf of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board to honor the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission.

• I’d like to take this opportunity to convey greetings to you from my fellow member of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, Ambassador Gabriel Guerra, who, as many of you know, traveled to Sri Lanka earlier this year to participate in the Commission’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

• The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, established by the U.S. Congress, consists of 12 private citizens from academic, business, cultural, and public life, who are appointed by the President of the United States to supervise and set policy for the Fulbright Program, approve all grantees, and promote the Fulbright Program worldwide.

• The role of the Board is to set policies and oversee the Fulbright Program. We also approve all participants selected to receive a Fulbright grant. In addition, we work to promote the Fulbright Program both in the U.S. and worldwide.

• U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright knew in 1946 that his “modest program with an immodest aim” to foster understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries was essential to advancing freedom, peace and international cooperation.

• The Fulbright Program started in Sri Lanka not long after the program was established. It’s clear from seeing you all here today and hearing about the many achievements of Fulbrighters to and from Sri Lanka that over the past 60 years, the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission has embodied Senator Fulbright’s ideals, infusing them in every scholar and student its supports.

• The fact that the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission makes a concerted effort to take advantage of the Fulbright program to advance bilateral policy goals, and to strengthen relations and mutual understanding between Sri Lanka and the United States is a tribute not only to the Commission and its Board of Directors, but also to its many engaged Fulbright alumni and current grantees.

• It is my great privilege to be here with you tonight. And on behalf of my colleagues on the Board and all the Fulbright alumni worldwide, I congratulate you on your anniversary and wish you a bright future ahead.

60th anniversary celebration of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright exchange

Keynote address by John Stifler

11 November 2012

To say it’s an honor to be here is to understate considerably. Next to having two wonderful children, the other best experience of my life has been to spend eight months in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright grant, and it’s an experience for which I will never stop being grateful.

What made it so great? Certainly there’s the obvious appeal of the whole Fulbright program: an opportunity to be abroad not as a tourist but to do some actual work. A Fulbright grant means being in another country with a purpose beyond going to see the mountains and the elephants – although to be sure those things are beautiful. It means scholarly research, teaching, studying, recording, writing, and more things.

But the experience I’m talking about involves a connection that’s deeper than the work, the specific assignment or project for which one gets this grant. It is a connection with oneself; a connection with what it means to be an American; a connection with one’s own awareness of other kinds of culture, ethnicity, religion, ritual, sports, food, language, you name it. And it is a connection with something ineffable, something you cannot name, label, categorize or measure.

Then too, the Fulbright experience, as I had it in Sri Lanka and as I think most of you in this room have seen for yourselves, means being part of an organization of amazingly dedicated people who run the program, with all its practical complexities, while managing to keep their sense of humor. I’m referring to those who work in the State Department, the CIES, and the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission office in Colombo. You know them.

All of us have our own stories – travel stories, personal anecdotes, bits of history and other lore we’ve picked up along the way. In Sri Lanka, for example, I learned how to tell whether a set of elephant tracks was made by a female, a common male, or a tusker. It’s interesting to try to say what all these stories add up to. It’s also pretty tricky. Something important in this experience is elusive, or at least it eludes me.

One useful approach to explaining the Fulbright exchange in Sri Lanka is that the island richly deserves its old name of Serendip. Serendipitous experiences abound there, if you get the time and the connections that the Fulbright fellowship provides. The most stunning of these, for me, was going to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, not on the usual Triangle tourist ticket but in the throng of pilgrims who gathered there on the weekend of the posonpoya. If I’m going to tell one story about my time in Sri Lanka, this is it.

One evening in Kandy, when my wife and a friend of hers were visiting from the U.S., we went to Helga’s Folly, the surreal, super-colorful hotel and restaurant perched high on a hill above the city. To get home again, we took a tuktuk driven by a man named Anura. Anura who also owns a shop near the university, was a pretty assertive guy, speaking good English. I phoned him another time when I needed a driver, and while he was driving me, he asked what places I had seen in Sri Lanka during my stay so far. I mentioned Sigirya, the Pinewala Elephant Orphanage, Galle Fort. He asked where else I hoped to go, and I mentioned the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnoruwa.

“I’m going to Anuradhapura this weekend,” he said. “With my family. It’s a big pilgrimage time. Would you like to come with us?”

I thought to myself that Senator J. William Fulbright would certainly want me to accept this kind of invitation to this adventure. “Yes, I would,” I said.

Friday morning we were on the road, in a flatbed truck, Anura driving, another guy and I sitting next to him in the front. In back, Anura’s various aunts, uncles and cousins had rigged a tarpaulin overhead and tied several of those ubiquitous plastic arm chairs to either side panel of the truck’s cargo area. They had a stove, too, keeping warm a big pot of what smelled like a very good lunch.

A vast number of other people and vehicles were on the roads that day too. Beside the road all along the way were other groups of people who had set up tables and in some cases tents where they were serving food. Free food – that’s a big part of posonpoya weekend. A good Buddhist gains merit by giving food to others. Rice.Jaggery.Tea.Cakes.Dried fruit. Pull over, stop the truck, take a plate.

While I was eager to share most of the experience with Anura and his relatives, I had made sure to reserve a hotel room for myself before leaving Kandy. When I made the reservation on the phone, the man on the other end of the line said, “Seventy-five dollars U.S.”

Having recently paid $60 for a night at the splendid Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, for a room and a sumptuous breakfast, I suggested that $75 seemed a bit high.

“Well, we are the finest hotel in Anuradhapura, and you will have an excellent room, very clean, with a.c.”

“All right,” I said, figuring my options were limited. “I’ll be coming up from Kandy on Friday afternoon.”
“You are living in Kandy?” he asked.

“Yes. I am teaching at the University of Peradeniya.”

“Ah. Well, we do have a lower rate for Sri Lanka residents.”

“What would that rate be?” I asked.

“We can discuss it when you arrive.”

When I arrived, at the end of a five-hour journey, in a battered white truck with the aforementioned tarp over the back and chairs fastened to the side panels and occupied by eight Sri Lankans, the man at the desk took one look and said, “Forty dollars.”

That evening I joined Anura and others as we walked around some of the vast ancient city. More than once, it has seemed to me that the weekend was like a Buddhist Woodstock – and I mean those words respectfully. The number of people on hand was probably close to the number at that great festival in 1969 in upstate New York, and the feeling of a shared experience, peaceful and happy, seemed not dissimilar. Five hundred thousand Sinhala Buddhists … and a blue-eyed Episcopalian from Massachusetts. One person I passed looked up and said to his neighbor, “Suddha.” No one else, however, seemed to take much notice of my light skin.

The moon was full of course, since a poya is a full moon holiday, and it shone on the enormous white curve of one of the city’s largest temples. I saw some monks laughing like old friends on any weekend evening. Vendors sold colorful paperback religious books, shirts, snacks, and – very useful the next day – sunglasses. Some people were preparing places to sleep under the trees; others stood in lines for more of the free food; some lit candles; others simply walked around.

We circled the temple, then sat facing it. At one point Anura quietly motioned to me to put my hands together and bow slightly forward. A prayer is universal.

I thought, very briefly, “How did I get here? What combination of circumstances, forces, whatever, has brought me to this place, this moment in the world?” In all my imagining of what a season in Sri Lanka would be like, I could not have conjured up anything so enormous and wonderful. On previous trips to exotic places, I had had some kind of advance knowledge. Kathmandu.Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.The Alps. Those places are magnificent, but they’re also more obviously famous and well advertised. Before going to each of those places, I had some idea of what I was going to see. This trip was beyond any planning.

There was a lot more serendipity for me on that island, notably including endless coincidences on the administrative side of the Fulbright grant. Maybe it’s just because Sir Lanka really is a small island and everyone there knows everyone else, but even so….

I met Tissa Jayatilaka in our Washington orientation sessions, naturally enough, since he’s the director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in Colombo. Only later did I find out that Tissa had earned a diploma in American studies at none other than Smith College. The Smith campus is not more than three miles from my house in Northampton, Massachusetts. My mother went to Smith, as did many friends. Almost every day, I walk or drive by the building where Tissa lived during his first visit to the United States.

Shortly before I left the United States for south Asia, my son graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. At the pre-graduation baccalaureate exercises at this famously Quaker college, the featured speaker was a man who had just returned from a long peace-seeking mission in Sri Lanka, mediating between the government and the LTTE. He spoke feelingly of the pain and the hope he had encountered.

When I got to Colombo, one of the first U.S. embassy people I met was Jim Moore, the deputy ambassador. Jim is a graduate from another small American college – Colby, in Maine. Colby has a long tradition of encouraging its students to spend a semester or year abroad. At the time, my daughter was a third-year Colby College student on her own semester abroad.

At our small group’s orientation at the Fulbright office on Flower Terrace in Colombo, one of the speakers was Tissa Abeysekara. Sadly, this wonderful writer and filmmaker died while I was in Sri Lanka; I was lucky to hear him speak a few months before his passing. Among his various writings was the popular collection of stories “Bringing Tony Home.” Colombo bookstores are full of fiction works written by Sri Lankans and published by Sri Lankan publishing companies. You can find “Bringing Tony Home” in any of these shops, but when you do, you will notice that its publisher is not one of the local outfits but, instead, North Atlantic Books – an American company founded and run by one of my friends from college.

The first American I met at the University of Peradeniya, on her own study-abroad with the I.S.L.E. program, was a young woman who not only attended Amherst College, as I had, but in fact lived there in the same room I had lived in. Nazreen Sansoni, the gracious owner of the Barefoot stores and café who also attended one of the writing workshops I conducted in Colombo, is a graduate of Western Michigan University, which lies a short distance from my mother’s family’s original home town in that state.

Beyond being sweet and amusing, these coincidences were also, I think, a portent of how connected it would be possible for me to feel in Sri Lanka. They were an indication of how accessible the country would be to all of us who were there on this grant. I had heard that the Fulbright association would open doors for us grantees, but I had no idea how many doors, and how quickly they would be flung open.

There had been talk, back at our Washington orientation, about how we would all receive Fulbright scholar identification cards that would ensure our easy entrance into whatever we were trying to visit. In fact, somehow those cards never materialized … and it didn’t matter at all. The doors opened just the same.

For example: In composing my application for the Fulbright grant in the first place, I had said that the research component of my time in Sri Lanka would be the current state of Sri Lankan literature in English. In an effort to seem as though I had some clue about what I was proposing, I did the obvious. The name I could quickly come up with was Michael Ondaatje’s, of course, but beyond that? I Googled “Sri Lankan writers.” Anne Ranasinghe. Jean Arasanayagam. Carl Muller. Those looked good. I put them into my application with some reference to how these were names with which I was, ahem, familiar.

The first book I bought on arriving in Colombo was a collection of essays written about Sri Lankan literature and published in honor of someone called Professor Ashley Halpe. Reading the cover, I saw that Professor Halpe was an esteemed professor of English literature at Peradeniya, and that one of the essays in the book was by Tissa Jayatilaka. Better buy this book.

A week later, sitting at my desk in the English faculty room at Peradeniya, I looked up and, recognizing him from his photo on the book, saw Ashley Halpe standing there. He offered a quiet, warm greeting. We became friends. Three weeks later, I was standing at a table at the Galle Literary Festival, as Anne Ranasinghe signed my copy of a book of her poems. Shortly after that, I was sitting in Carl Muller’s living room, drinking scotch and talking with him about publishers and book reviewers in Colombo. Jean Arasanayagam invited me to dinner with her family, and we spent a couple of long evenings discussing religion, politics, the university and all the other things you’d like to imagine. This, I realized over and over, is exactly what is supposed to happen when you get a Fulbright grant.

Colleagues at Peradeniya took me to the Gratien Literary Awards ceremony. A couple of weeks later, to my delight, that year’s winner came to visit me at Peradeniya. And there were other cultural experiences besides literary ones. As part of Bridget Halpe’s choral group, I got to sing the Verdi “Requiem” in a televised concert in Colombo. Thanks to another new friend in Kandy, I got to watch the famous EsalaPerahera not only from the sidewalks of that old city but in fact backstage at one of the temples, where I could see the mahouts feeding and dressing the elephants and electricians checking the strings of lights on the elephants’ backs, while scores of traditional Kandy dancers fastened on their red sashes and the rest of their costumes in preparation for night after night of the great parade.

It would be a mistake, though, to suggest that the essence of the Fulbright experience in Sri Lanka is that it’s a magical adventure only, or that the main activity of a Fulbright grantee in that amazing country is to sit back in one of those classic plantation lounge chairs – you know the ones, with their long, wide flat wooden arms on which you can rest not only your elbows but a bottle of scotch and two or three glasses, or a pot of tea and some cups, plus a couple of books and a small radio or a laptop – and just chatting. Being in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright grant is real work, and exhilaratingly so.

For me the work included a great deal of teaching. Especially, it involved using what I do at the University of Massachusetts to help students at Peradeniya University to develop their writing abilities. I also had the opportunity to do some work in the economics department, including a talk about language and the persistent challenge, for a native speaker of Sinhala or Tamil, in getting the verb tense and prepositions right in English.

Then there were the workshops in Colombo: creative writing, business writing, and, especially, the workshop that Tissa and Ramya arranged for journalists. These gatherings contained profound lessons both for the participants and for me, notably including many lessons about editing – how it is (or isn’t) practiced in Sri Lanka, how it can be done better — and about the differing roles of journalists in our two countries. I am quite sure the journalists who participated in this workshop got some fundamental lessons about how to compose, select, clarify, reach a larger audience better.

My workshop at the Postgraduate Institute of Management brought together a number of participants who are teachers themselves. That class was lively, and I would dearly love to use that connection to create a further, larger exchange between P.I.M. and UMass. The challenge, I regret to say, is summed up in what one American colleague offered as a reason why no one in his department would be interested in going on an academic visit to Sri Lanka: “Area studies aren’t a focus for us anymore.” Not a good reason, in my opinion, and maybe someone else at UMass will be more sanguine. But then too, while the people in charge at P.I.M. are eager to welcome an American visiting faculty member, they appear reluctant to think that one of their own native faculty members might go off to the United States when he or she is badly needed in the classroom in Colombo. These problems are there for us all to sort out, sooner or later.

More about the work: While I was busy with reading current Sri Lankan literature and teaching various classes and leading workshops, two of my fellow Fulbright grantees were also teaching university students, one in physics, the other in social work. Another was studying maternity healthcare available to Tamil women who work in the tea plantations; another, ambulance service and emergency medical care. The two most recently graduated from college were doing research on the slave trade in the Indian Ocean several centuries ago and on women’s groups.

What does the Fulbright experience in Sri Lanka lead to? You all have your own assessments; these are the ones I see:

Through this program, Americans gain a much greater awareness of Sri Lanka as a country. My own wife will admit that until I received the Fulbright invitation, she herself had not actually known where Sri Lanka is, and she was hardly alone. Also, any American who has visited India is enlightened by the almost immediate discovery, upon landing at Bandaranaike Airport, that Sri Lanka is most definitely not India Junior; it’s a very different place, in some ways more cosmopolitan and more mature.

The educational opportunities available through the U.S.-SL Fulbright exchange indeed work in both directions. For one of my American fellow travelers, this time in Sri Lanka was a step toward completing his PhD. For me it included a re-acquaintance with Henry Fielding, an author who bears numerous repeated visits, and Horace Walpole, who doesn’t, but whose “Castle of Otranto” provided many moments of mirth and good quips from my second-year students at Peradeniya.

Shortly after I left Sri Lanka, a young Peradeniya graduate who edited a literary journal (and published an essay I wrote for it) received a Fulbright grant herself, subsequently coming, sure enough, to the comparative literature program at my own University of Massachusetts. At the same time, one of my best Peradeniya students was accepted to the UMass graduate program in English literature – not with a Fulbright grant, but with sufficient funding from UMass to make his academic sojourn in the U.S. possible. My recommendation may have helped him gain acceptance. I remembered how my own path to postgraduate study in England was made easier because I had a recommendation from an English poet who had come to the U.S. as a visiting writer where I was an undergraduate; now, in a small way, I had perhaps repaid the favor.

Another hugely important point about the value of the Fulbright exchange is that the deep involvement it makes possible between an American and one foreign country enables that person to appreciate what it means to understand more deeply any other country. For me the connection has been Haiti, a place I visited for the first time this past summer. In some ways Haiti is more unfamiliar than Sri Lanka was for me on first arriving, even though it is more Western. Sharing some of the work of a small relief effort in Haiti, I feel as though I can do more, can be more useful, because I have been to Sri Lanka – and that’s not particularly because while I was in Sri Lanka the civil war was still going on, even though there are some similarities between the two countries, notably including uncountable numbers of destroyed buildings and many thousands of refugees. It is, rather, mainly a matter of becoming prepared for the unexpected, and of being excited to respond to it.

More specifically, living in Sri Lanka can enhance an American’s awareness of the role, in global economic and cultural development, of Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and, in a different way, Canada, with its large population of Sri Lankan emigrants. (Last summer I stayed one night in a charming bed-and-breakfast in a town in Ontario. When I asked the proprietor where she was from originally, she said, “From Sri Lanka. Have you heard of it?”)

The Fulbright experience keeps expanding. Eight months in Sri Lanka made me understand how tea grows, how elephants learn, what the tsunami did to towns and people and the entire landscape, … and how the people in the U.S. State Department, whom I had once vaguely imagined to be a large set of interchangeable talking heads, have their own extraordinary hopscotching career trajectories, and how they are experts at packing not only their suitcases but their personal lives to move from one place to another while never looking burned out, never losing the ability to smile.

Speaking of the State Department, I’ll repeat another fact that you probably already know: Aside from the basic reports we write about what we did while abroad, Fulbrighters aren’t being sent overseas to collect information and then to be debriefed upon our return. We’re specifically reminded that nobody back in Washington or at the embassy in Colombo expects us to tout some official U.S. party line and to promote American foreign policy. As the Serendipity Group’s chairman Donald Camp said just now, we get to go off-track.

We are being sent to do our own research and teaching and, secondarily, to carry on what I’ve heard referred to as “soft diplomacy.” And I think I can certify that U.S. taxpayers’ dollars really are being very well spent in this cause. Without ever feeling as though there were some role we were supposed to act, I think we were, are, doing something to help make the United States of America look good to people overseas.

I’d like to pay a few more tributes to Sri Lanka and to my friends there:

I’ll especially pay tribute to cricket. For an American, just learning the rules of cricket and the strategies of the game is practically an entire Fulbright experience in itself – especially if, like me, you get the rules explained to you by three elderly women who invite you to sit in their living room while they drink scotch and you all watch a match on the TV.

To the natural world in Sri Lanka. The jamfruit trees, the monkeys, the monitor lizards in the lake in the center of Kandy, the kingfishers of many species, and the magnificent dusty, scrub-tree beauty of Yala, the national park where I saw four leopards in the wild.

To those who died in the long, awful war, and to those who were, and still are, displaced by that conflict. If you are Sri Lankan, you know these stories painfully well, and far better than I know them. I had the unexpected good fortune to be there and see the day the war ended. May 19, 2009.

To all the other foreigners in Sri Lanka, and to the further international exchanges possible there. Singing at the Russian Cultural Center for the visiting Cuban ambassador – a treat I would be unlikely to get in the U.S. Increasing awareness of the growth of contemporary China – not just because we can all see the big new buildings being built in Colombo with Chinese funds, but because I met and went hiking with two hilarious young Chinese men who, despite that country’s official downplaying of religion in general, were Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka as students of ancient religious knowledge.

The Fulbright experience evokes for me an image of getting into a boat on a river somewhere – an old river with many meandering bends, tributaries, eddies and islands. Sometimes you can steer the boat, sometimes the current or the wind carries you along and all you can do is hold on and watch to see what will happen next. But as you go along, more and more you feel how, while way leads on to way, all places are connected.

To sum up, here’s why the Fulbright program in Sri Lanka works as it does, why the experience is so rich and so powerful:

The Fulbright Commission can claim an extraordinary office in Colombo. When we all went to the South Asian Fulbright conference in Calcutta, we noticed that the Fulbright programs in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan were all directed by Americans. The director of the Fulbright program in Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan, as is the deputy director. Tissa and Ramya possess native knowledge of the country, while each has a well-developed affinity for American speech, habits and thought.

The U.S. State Department and the various other Washington entities that overlap to create the Fulbright program – CIES, IIE – are full of amazingly warm, helpful people who either love what they do or else are among this country’s most brilliant actors.

Some of the success of the program must lie with the individual grantee. I did (and do) feel as though, through all the years of my life, all the way back to the first foreign coin I ever owned – a small round piece of brass marked “Ceylon” that I got from inside a cereal box when I was seven years old – something was pointing me in this direction.

And some of the success of this program – how much? there’s no way to measure – is, after all, Sri Lanka itself. Its geography, its history, its unfamiliarity to so many Westerners, its size, and something more. In the right circumstances, any country can provide someone with a feeling of ecstasy, an epiphany, enlightenment. Sri Lanka somehow does more than all those things. For this effect we have much thanks to offer to CIES, the IIE, the State Department, and the U.S.-Sri Lanka commission; to ourselves; and to the island. I feel blessed. I think we all are.